The Middle Ages have long been a favorite whipping boy for most admirers of modern times. They do not suspect that whenever they do this in print or in lectures in a university context, they provide three evidences on behalf of the striking modernity of the Middle Ages.

We moderns take it for granted that almost all our activities, among them lectures, are scheduled for an exact time. We also take it for granted that we have the tools—clocks—that make this possible. We hardly ever think that clocks were first made in the Middle Ages.

There were, of course, tools to measure time well before the Middle Ages such as the sundial and the hour-glass. They had one thing in common: they were not reliable enough to set a punctual schedule. They could regulate life to the hour and perhaps to the half hour, but hardly to the quarter hour, let alone to the minute.

The essentially unregulated lifestyle of pre-medieval times is given in a capsule form in that wedding invitation sent out on a piece of papyrus about 1,900 years ago in Alexandria, the great capital of the Hellenistic world. In that invitation a certain Dionysius requested his friends to share the wedding dinner of his daughter and son-in-law “in Ischuron’s restaurant on the 30th of the month from the ninth hour on,” that is, from 3 p.m. on.

This setting of the time as “from the ninth hour on” tells a world of difference between ancient life and modern life. In the absence of steadily running and widely available clocks, it was impossible to set an exact time for a wedding or for anything else. The expression “from the ninth hour on” simply meant that from mid-afternoon on the wedding dinner would be available to those invited. Today no caterer or clergyman would be part of such a wedding although brides, apt to arrive late, would just love it.

Whether we like it or not, or whether some brides love it or not, our entire modern life is run by clocks. They often make life a bit mechanical but they save us from chaos and assure the kind of productivity without which life would collapse.

All this modernity started sometime in the very middle of the High Middle Ages, or around 1250, when the first mechanical clock was most likely constructed. The oldest of such clocks that survived is the clock of the Salisbury Cathedral in England, a clock made around 1300. Any visitor there can see it in the left nave. There are a fair number of cathedral clocks that are only a hundred years younger and some of them are very elaborate such as the famed clock of the Strasbourg Cathedral.

About the clock of the Salisbury Cathedral two things are to be noted. One is the extraordinary measure of inventiveness that went into its construction. The problem to be solved was to transform the gravitational force, which makes bodies fall at an accelerated rate, into a force acting at a steady rate. The solution consisted in the combination of two pieces of machinery which regulate each other’s motion or, to use the modern idiom, control one another by a mutual feedback mechanism.

The two pieces of machinery (see Figure 1) are a weight-driven wheel mounted on a horizontal axis and a horizontal bar with adjustable weights (w1 and w2) on its two ends that turns on a vertical axis or verge. As the weight (W) at the end of the rope makes the wheel rotate (Phase 1), its peg 1 moves forward (out of the plane in counterclockwise direction) and pushes in the same direction the upper (A) of the two palettes of the vertical axis (at the same time peg 4 moves beyond the plane of the diagram). But the same action also moves the lower axial palette (B) into the path of peg 3. This slows down and stops the rotation of the wheel but only as long as the horizontal bar with two weights (w1 and w2) spends its counterclockwise momentum through the opposition of palette B to peg 3. Once this is done the main weight (W) can again move (Phase 2) the wheel whose peg 5 is now moving forward against palette A (which is being rotated back toward its original position). As a result peg 2 moves toward the position formerly occupied by peg 3 and is ready to oppose palette B in the same way as this was done earlier by peg 3.

Modern Age Summer/Fall 1987, p. 209

The secret of sustaining that process is a proper coordination of the three weights, of the position of the two weights (w1 and w2) on the horizontal axis, and of the respective separations of the pegs and palettes. Once this is achieved, the acceleration of the main weight is turned into the source of a steadily acting energy by which clocks or other mechanisms can be driven at a steady rate. Those aware of the importance of feedback mechanism in countless modern instruments will immediately recognize the stunning modernity of that medieval invention.

The other thing to note about it is that it was not the fruit of a systematic engineering, but of a procedure known as trial-and-error in which intuition plays a crucial role. This is also an evidence of its modernity. For all the exact mathematics available to modern scientists, they still do their best work through intuition.

At any rate, soon clocks in belfries began to strike the hour and the quarter hour in an ever growing number of medieval towns. Life began to be regulated more and more in anticipation of the pace set by modern factories, offices, shops, and transportation. Clocks were not the only technological invention for which our modern times owe a great debt to the medievals. There were in fact so many medieval innovations in technology that as late as the eighteenth century they formed the basis of all industrial skill.

Among those innovations was the cam, which is still the mainstay of all locomotives and automobiles. Cams make possible the transformation of the linear motion of the piston in the cylinder of a car engine into a rotational motion of the wheels. Once cams were available, it was possible to use to full advantage not only watermills but also windmills, the spread of which during the twelfth century throughout Western Europe was a part of the medieval technological revolution.

Combined with cams, the rotary motion of mills could be used to operate hammers and saws. This helped develop the timber industry and the pulping of linen for paper. Once paper made of linen could be produced in large quantities it was natural to think about producing books in a way much more efficient than copying them by hand. Elaborate printing of entire pages by blocks was flourishing by 1400. At that time, there had already been many experiments with movable type. The perfection of the Gutenberg Bible is a proof that it was a late stage of a long development that must have been going on for at least two or three generations before Gutenberg came onto the scene. It still has to sink into modern consciousness what Pierce Butler wrote on this point in his The Origin of Printing in Europe almost half a century ago:

The bulk of early printed material actually represented by surviving specimens is so great that one must believe many men in many places contributed to their production. The range of technological differences exhibited by this material indicates a progressive development which would imply that many minds were occupied in trial-and-error experiments over a long period. Gutenberg may have originated the first idea of a successful method for printing initial letters in color, but there is little warrant except late tradition for ascribing to him a higher honor.1

In other words, the credit for the discovery of printing with movable type should go to an unknown technological genius of the late 1300s and to a medieval culture which provided a most fertile soil for the seed of a great invention. So much for the unwitting evidence which is provided on behalf of the modernity of the Middle Ages by anyone who claims the opposite, either in print or in a lecture scheduled for a specific hour.

Such an antagonist would further undercut his credibility if in addition he were to use a university lecture hall as his forum. If anything bears witness to the modernity of the Middle Ages, universities do. Modern life is inconceivable without universities, but this was no less true of medieval life which saw their rise in the first place.

When a newly founded institution spreads rapidly, it reveals a feature very characteristic of the spirit of the times. The spirit in question was a high-keyed eagerness to know everything possible, to know the universe of things and of truth. This gives a clue not only to the medieval foundation and spread of universities, but also to what deserves to be called the technological explosion in the Middle Ages.

Technological inventions are often attributed to material needs. That such needs are the sole source of inventions is the claim of Marxism, which may not even be true about spoons and forks as they are not found in all old human settlements. The same claim is obviously not true about cams, clocks, printing press, and universities. That claim is even less valid about the vast medieval program of translating into Latin, partly from Arabic, the philosophical and scientific literature produced by the Greeks of old. That literature contained little in the way of technology which the medievals did not already know or know much better than did the Greeks. The Greeks, let us not forget, would have never been tempted to build such daring constructions as the medieval cathedrals which embody several important architectural innovations. Yet the medievals were able to absorb those markedly philosophical Greek writings, many of them written by Aristotle, in a way which led in the mid-fourteenth century to the birth of science, the chief pride of our modern age. The modernity of the Middle Ages is nowhere more telling than in the medieval birth of modern science.

This may seem a provocatively novel statement, but there is nothing really new about it. When first proposed with a vast historical evidence in the early twentieth century, the modern intellectual world received it for a while with stunned disbelief. Then, from the 1940s on, that world went on a cultural counterattack against what may be best called the Duhem thesis. Part of that attack took the form of a conspiracy of some important academics to prevent the publication of the second half of a ten-volume masterpiece of Duhem. They succeeded for almost three decades.2

Pierre Duhem (1861-1916) was a French theoretical physicist educated in the Comtean perspective of intellectual history. The least objectionable aspect of that perspective was that no subject is properly understood until it is investigated in its historical development. So Duhem, a world authority on thermodynamics, began to write a history of the basic principles of mechanics. Very naturally he began with the Greeks (Archimedes in particular); he then wanted to go straight to Galileo, jumping about two thousand years. A very good Catholic, Duhem did not share the Comtean bias that there was nothing of importance in medieval philosophy and theology. But like all other Catholics of his time (and unfortunately like almost all Catholic intellectuals of our time), Duhem felt that there was no science to be looked for in the Middle Ages. While he studied the works of Galileo’s immediate predecessors, he found an obscure reference to a certain Jordanus. The reference, which had just been noted by two historians of science among Duhem’s contemporaries, was all the more enigmatic because in that message the mysterious Jordanus was credited with the discovery of the most fundamental law of mechanics, the law of virtual velocities.

What the two others did not do, although they were professional historians of science, Duhem did, and in a way which in the long run turned him into the most original historian of science of all times. Duhem undertook an intensive search for Jordanus, a search that ultimately led him to his heroic discovery of the origin of modern science in the Middle Ages. He expected anything but that. First Duhem was led from sixteenth-century printed books to the incunabula. Beyond that, there was a largely unexplored field of manuscripts written mostly in Latin shorthand, which varied from region to region and from century to century. No one was more surprised than Duhem on finding that Jordanus was part of the fourteenth-century Sorbonne, one of the great if not the greatest of medieval universities.

As always happens, one breakthrough quickly opened up a vast, unsuspected field. Within four or five years Duhem also found that the first intimations of Newton’s first law of motion were also tied to medieval Sorbonne. In two Sorbonne professors, Buridan and Oresme, who had been remembered only as curious figures in the history of philosophy, Duhem discovered two scientific geniuses. Most important, he discovered a very medieval reason for their historic breakthroughs in science. The reason was genuine, unadulterated Christian creed and theology.

The basis of Christian religion is belief in revelation as it is guaranteed by the teaching authority of the Church and codified in the various creeds. All the short and long creeds or credal formulas begin with the words: “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth.” In other words, the Creed begins with the statement that the universe is a creation of God. In the beginning of the High Middle Ages, in the Fourth Lateran Council held in 1214, the Church also solemnly defined an age-old Christian conviction that the universe was created in time. By this, the Church meant that the past history of the universe was finite.

It was with such convictions that Buridan read Aristotle, for whom the universe was uncreated and therefore eternal. Thomas Aquinas and many other medievals before Buridan had also read Aristotle’s statements that the universe was eternal. They all rejected it on the ground that it contradicted revelation. Buridan did the same but with a difference. Unlike Aquinas, a theologian with little interest in the scientific aspects of physical reality, Buridan was very much interested in them. Thus when Buridan claimed against Aristotle that the world had a finite past, he naturally thought about the physical manner in which the motion of the universe may have started.

The manner or way could not be the one which Aristotle proposed in terms of his pantheism. According to Aristotle, the universe moved, because its highest part, the sphere of the fixed stars, was in a sort of contact with the divine motor or the Prime Mover. It was through that eternal contact with the divine that, in Aristotle’s opinion, the universe had been moving (rotating) since eternity and would keep moving forever.

Since Buridan the Christian had to postulate an absolute beginning for physical motion, it was practically impossible for him to keep that notion of contact as a source of motion. A universe created by God freely in time could not be imagined as being necessarily in contact with the divine. If no contact, then what? It is at that point that Buridan’s genius asserted itself, a genius obviously motivated by his Christian convictions. He resorted to the idea of giving or imparting, an idea very much a part of the Christian notion of creation. Is not creation, which is an act of producing something out of nothing, a giving and imparting in the deepest possible sense? And was not God’s giving something so solid and reliable as to stay with the thing to which it was given?

Thoughts like these must have been in the back of Buridan’s mind as he made his statement about the beginning of all physical motion:

When God created the world, He moved each of the celestial orbs as he pleased, and in moving them He impressed in them impetuses which moved them without His having to move them any more except by the method of general influence whereby He concurs as a co-agent in all things which take place; . . . these impetuses which He impressed in the celestial bodies were not decreased nor corrupted afterward, because there was no resistance which would be corruptive or repressive of that impetus.

The historical significance of that statement cannot be emphasized enough. It includes three all-important features. First, and the most obvious, is the statement’s substantial equivalence to Newton’s first law of motion. Since that law is the foundation of Newton’s second and third laws, in Buridan’s statement one has at hand the very basis of the science of physics. The importance of that science for modern life is well known. Much less known, and often not even suspected, is the medieval origin of that modernity.

The second feature to be noted about Buridan’s statement is that it implies the notion of autonomous laws of nature. Once God gives motion to the universe, the universe keeps it and keeps acting in accordance with it. In other words, the proper idea of creation secures the notion of a nature acting consistently with the laws given to it. It is this consistency which is presupposed by all physicists as they do their research.

The third feature of the modernity of Buridan’s medieval statement relates to the quantity of motion given to the universe. The idea was part of a broader notion about the universe, an idea which came straight out of the Book of Wisdom, one of the last books of the Old Testament. There the Creator is spoken of as one “who arranges everything according to measure, number, and weight.” The phrase is not just another phrase from the Bible. Rather, as noted by Ernst Curtius, a foremost Protestant specialist on medieval literature, it was the most often quoted biblical passage during the Middle Ages. Such a phrase can readily form a climate of thought, which in fact it did. The efforts to treat processes quantitatively were numerous from the fourteenth century on. One of the results was the introduction of the art of latitudes, the forerunner of the use of coordinate systems.

In speaking about that phrase from the Bible, one must not picture medieval men, not even medieval scholars, as running around with Bibles in their pockets. Since Bibles were handwritten, they had to be relatively few and very expensive. Yet the medieval intellectuals knew their Bible very well because they were well instructed in catechism and in theology. The passages and stories of the Bible were part of a broad oral instruction. The quality of that instruction can be gathered from the fact that the medieval intellectual was a man with a drive which derived from the Bible’s very first chapters. He was driven by a biblical sense of mission. He felt that God’s words addressed to the first man and woman to “multiply and subdue the earth” were also addressed to him.

It was that drive which produced an agricultural revolution in the Middle Ages that witnessed the introduction of crop rotation. It witnessed the introduction of the breast harness which greatly increased the effectiveness of the use of horses as a main source of power. That drive produced a technological revolution which was not surpassed until the coming of the steam engine in the late eighteenth century. That medieval drive produced the intellectual revolution through the establishment of universities.

The source of that drive was the Christian consciousness of man’s purpose and responsibility. For all his drive to subdue the earth, the medieval man knew that he was not nature’s owner but God’s steward placed in nature. Of course the medieval man did not know enough about the ecological dangers of deforestation, of wood burning, of waste disposal, of pollution of air and water. But he was not a cultivator of irresponsibility. The ecological threat came upon us in the same measure in which modern man came to think of himself as his own master with no responsibility to anything or anyone higher than himself.

There should indeed seem to be a glaring inconsistency in the charge which blames the Christian drive to subdue the earth for our ecological crisis. The charge rarely goes together with the recognition that if medievals are to be blamed for the abuse of technology, they must first be credited with the creation of a technology that could be abused on a large scale.

This portrayal of medievals as paragons of modernity will sound very jarring to that secularist pseudo-learnedness which banks heavily on the alleged darkness of the Middle Ages. But it may also rankle those pious people who take Saint Francis for the quintessence of the medieval spirit. He was that quintessence, but in a more subtle way than generally assumed. His ideal of poverty is a case in point. His spiritual children were supposed to own little or nothing and to obtain their livelihood through begging. But begging on a large scale—the number of friars grew by leaps and bounds—was possible only if goods were produced in sufficient quantity to be distributed to beggars, high-minded and otherwise.

Second, the Christian ideal as promoted by Saint Francis was a revolution but never a call to revolt. Saint Francis enjoined on his spiritual children above all a complete loyalty to ecclesiastical authority and to the Pope in particular. But since the hierarchy is the principle of continuity, by stressing loyalty to it, Saint Francis wanted a firm tie with the past in order to have a safe future.

What is needed in modern times is a sense of balance, a thorough appreciation of patterns or quantities as well as of qualities and values. That sense of balance the medievals possessed to a high degree because they were steeped in Christian faith.

In that respect Saint Francis or the medieval man was not modern at all. But it is precisely that non-modernity of the medieval man which should be most helpful to modern man. In his contempt for tradition, for continuity, in his maddening resolve to raze to the ground almost everything in every forty or fifty years, in his craving for novelty for novelty’s sake, modern man is obviously destroying the ground under his very feet. Whether he will be ready to turn to the medievals for a much-needed medicine remains to be seen.

If he does avail himself of that medieval medicine, modern man may also find a cure for his most serious sickness. It is his mastering of the realm of quantities to the extent of losing his sense of purpose and values. Modern man is so much a slave of quantities that he recognizes only patterns, and wants to see patterns where they simply cannot exist. Patterns—physical, economical, social, psychological, and even some cognitive patterns—are always quantitative, in principle at least. But no wizardry with quantities, numbers, and statistics is going to yield so much as a drop of value and purpose.

The result is the imprisonment of modern life in sheer relativism, a very logical result because there can be no essential difference among patterns. No pattern as such can be better in the valuational sense than any other pattern. Failure to recognize this is what constitutes the modern slavery to relativism through pattern worship. That slavery supports the fashionability of such new-fangled expressions as bi-sexual and hetero-sexual, so many verbal shields to make us see mere patterns and not moral disasters in realities denoted by such words as lesbian and homosexual.

Modern man simply does not want to see that anarchy looms large behind the relativization of all values in terms of patterns of behavior. All such patterns are nowadays socially and legally justified as soon as they are acted out by a statistically significant number of people. The matter was put a few years ago with fearsome bluntness by Professor W. Pearce Williams of Cornell University. In a letter (December 21, 1983) to The New York Times, he came to the aid of Professor Donald Kagan, who warned against any resort to higher moral law in such burning social questions as civil disobedience in support of civil rights:

What Kagan, I think, was arguing was that there is no “moral” universe to which citizens can now appeal that provides an adequate basis for disobedience to the law. I find it strange that liberals, who insist upon the ultimate relativism of all moral values, suddenly appeal to a “higher” morality (which they are careful not to define) when it suits them. All that went out with the Victorians, and we now inhabit a society in which all moral opinions seem equally valid. . . . The point, of course, is, as Kagan clearly stated, that we live in a consensual society in which we often have to do things we don’t want to do, or even think are wrong, because we have agreed to abide by majority rule. Destroy that argument, and the result is not freedom but anarchy—a condition which the United States seems rapidly approaching.

This steady approach to anarchy is fueled by modern man’s lopsided preoccupation with patterns, a preoccupation fomented by most members of the academia. In order to move back from the edge of anarchy, it is not attention to patterns that ought to be discarded. Rather, a sense of purpose ought to be recovered. What is needed in modern times is a sense of balance, a thorough appreciation of patterns or quantities as well as of qualities and values. That sense of balance the medievals possessed to a high degree because they were steeped in Christian faith. The chief recommendation of that faith is not that it may be as useful for modern times as it was for medieval times, but rather that it is indispensable for all times.

Stanley L. Jaki was an author, physicist, philosopher, and priest of the Benedictine order. He also served as a professor at Seton Hall University, in South Orange, New Jersey.

  1. Chicago, 1940, pp. 138, 143. ↩︎
  2. A preliminary presentation of that intellectual and cultural scandal is give in my article on “Science and Censorship: Hélène Duhem and the Publication of the Système du monde,” Intercollegiate Review (Winter 1985-86), pp. 41-49. ↩︎